A journey back to academia

The stories of young people taking on big tasks to transform the world we live in have always inspired me. Therefore, I was very happy to be invited to share my stories as part of a project to bring together Industrial Ecologists around the world.

I am now doing a PhD in “user acceptance of circular resource efficient solutions” at NTNU, which is interesting in itself, since I once swore that I would never go back to academia back in my days as a biodiversity conservation and climate change specialist in Colombia (my country of origin). As a sustainability practitioner, I used to almost despise what researchers did in their little offices while being totally disconnected from the real world. And then, 8 years into the ‘real world’ I realised that a lot of the work done by conservation NGOs in places like Colombia was not based on proper scientific knowledge. I felt we were wasting valuable resources protecting forests and livelihoods from forces that were bigger than us. Then I realised that if we were to save ecosystems and communities in places like Colombia, we would need to look much further up the casual chain. And academia is where that kind of thinking can be done.

It has been 5 years since I had such realisation when I started my master’s in Industrial Ecology. It was an amazing experience for me, especially since I had been working for a long time and was 10 years older than my peers. I felt reinvigorated, I was able to take every piece of knowledge in and give it a special meaning because of my experiences in the “real world”. At the beginning of this journey in 2013, I discovered circular economy as a concept being promoted in Europe. And I fell in love. So I did my master thesis on “Circularity assessment of companies: elements for a general framework” , which later won the 2016 Jan Rydbergs award for best thesis at Chalmers University. Afterwards, I went back home and worked for the government as a capacity building consultant in the field of climate finance. I coordinated the National Strategy for Climate Finance, which was recently approved in Colombia.

Then the perfect opportunity to dive back into research came to me in 2016… A PhD on circular economy!

The story of how I landed my research topic could be traced back to 2007, when I started a project called Ecochic Estilo ConSentido where we tried to divert consumers (mainly our peers) from buying new clothes to swapping with others. Such model was later known as “Sharing Economy”, part of today’s broad scope of “Circular Economy”. During this experience, a question I always had in the back of my mind was “how could we convince or make it more attractive for people to engage in initiatives such as Ecochic?”. I wondered if there were researchers looking into this kind of questions.

Today, I am one of those researchers, studying the factors that influence people’s decision process to choose circular solutions such as reused or refurbished products, product service systems or sharing platforms. I am focusing on two product categories, clothing and toys and I am using data from high and middle income countries. During the first year of the PhD I have presented three papers in three conferences, so far.

The first one was based on my master thesis and I presented it at the 23rd International Sustainable Development Research Society conference in Bogota where it won best paper. The second paper summarised a small study where I investigated factors of acceptance of three fashion subscription services by analysing user-generated content and I presented at the 18th European Roundtable on Sustainable Production and Consumption in Greece. The third paper I wrote was a review of the literature on circular strategies such as Product Service Systems and remanufacturing regarding consumer and user acceptance. I presented it in the Product Lifetimes and the Environment conference in the Netherlands.

Now, I am working on a study to explore why a practice such as clothes swapping has started to become more popular in my home country, Colombia and then I expect to compare it to the Norwegian and Swedish cases. I am also designing the studies to investigate the same questions but for toys because they are a very special kind of product with a lot of potential for the transition to a circular economy.

From these initial ideas I have learned that humans are very complicated, that our decisions are not usually rational, and that although we might be aware of how much damage we do to the environment through our consumption, when it comes to it, we don’t change. It doesn’t matter how much you tell us how bad or stupid it is, if everyone else is doing it then, we are not going to stop. I have also learned that putting all the responsibility of the transition on the consumers is a tactic of businesses to justify their inertia. A combined approach is needed, some may call it co-evolutionary, both companies and consumers need to change, and other stakeholders such as the government, academia and the media are critical to steering such change.

Personal Note:

I am based in Norway, a country I always wanted to live in after watching the movie “Lovers of the Polar Circle”. I get to travel to different places to present my research and meet other researcher working on similar topics. I am far away from home but I keep personal and professional ties by participating in the Platform of the Americas for Circular Economy and writing a monthly column for a local magazine. Even though I’ve diverted from the traditional fields of industrial ecology, I am in constant contact with my dear colleagues from the MIND program and of course the broader sustainability professional abroad. If you are working with the people’s side of the circular economy, please feel free to reach out and share ideas.